Criminal Justice Reform & Litigation

AU Watch believes that a system of impartial and efficient justice is a cornerstone of fair and prosperous societies. We improve the administration of justice in Africa by strengthening the capacity of the people and institutions that deliver it, and making sure it is accessible to all. We believe that courts should be both independent and accountable. We also believe that the regional system to protect human rights should also be independent and accountable to the African people. We work with them to reduce delays and improve transparency, and we help ensure that judges are appointed, promoted and disciplined in a manner free from political influence.
We help create local judicial and legal training centers so that judges, prosecutors and lawyers are better equipped to perform their crucial roles. By also focusing on improvements in basic legal education at universities, we help develop a new generation of legal professionals who possess more practical skills and understand how law can be a vehicle for social change.

What We Do At Our Justice and Litigation Unit

We work to secure effective and sustainable national justice systems where duty-bearers provide justice services for all, and rightsholders have knowledge and ability to seek remedy for their grievances.

(a) Our Justice and Litigation Unit works to strengthen democratic societies by bringing together government, civil society, and the private sector – to build accountable, capable and transparent institutions. We have learned from our work that a collaborative approach involving civil society, government and the private sector is the key to ensuring that citizens exercise their rights, and institutions are accountable for protecting them. This leads to more just and prosperous societies.

(b) We address complex challenges with practical, cross-cutting solutions. We specialize in targeted, locally relevant initiatives that foster partnerships, and cross-sector collaboration, from assisting the state and local advocates in policy creation and reform to engaging in court administration, local economic development and technical support to civil society. 

(c) We know that a justice system is not just if it is beyond the reach of the poor and the vulnerable. We help expand the breadth and quality of legal aid and we develop innovative public awareness campaigns so that people understand their rights and how to exercise them. We also encourage civil society groups to mobilize their constituencies to monitor the courts and push for improvements in the justice system.
Our Unit helps improve justice by strengthening the capacity of the people and institutions that deliver it, and by ensuring meaningful access for citizens. We build human capacity by supporting sustainable judicial and legal training centers, and by improving legal education at the university level. Our innovative public education efforts enable citizens to understand and exercise their rights, hold justice institutions accountable, and advocate for change.

Litigation Within The African Human Rights System

The African human rights system is the youngest regional human rights regime currently in operation. The adoption of the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights also resulted in the establishment of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1987. The African Commission was charged with the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights and the interpretation of the African Charter. In 1998, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights was adopted, thereby establishing a complementary counterpart to the Commission that could issue binding decisions.
The African regional courts are robust forums worth considering when pursuing human rights claims. They offer good perspectives for strategic litigation for a number of reasons, which include the following.

Human rights protection in the region does not stop at the African Court. Two of the four sub-regional courts, the ECOWAS Court of Justice and the East African Court of Justice, have handed down decisions on, amongst others, slavery, torture, press freedom, child rights and access to medical treatment. Both courts were originally set up as economic courts, but were subsequently either explicitly mandated to consider human rights cases (ECOWAS) or started unilaterally giving a more expansive interpretation to their mandate (EACJ).

AU Watch engages in strategic litigation in national, regional, and international courts and tribunals across a range of human rights issues. Legal cases brought in the public interest aim not only to obtain individual redress, but also to achieve a broader impact by setting an important precedent or otherwise reforming official policy and practice.


In many states, the law or its institutions do not adequately provide people access to justice. Without access to justice, human rights cannot be realised. Our systemic approach is well suited for addressing relevant justice providers as well as needs of rights holders in improving access to justice.

Our objective is to improve duty bearers’ capacity to provide justice services and rights holders’ ability to access justice. We do so by strategic litigation, engaging with local partners – state and non-state justice actors –and supporting them to fulfil their diverse roles within their justice context.

Can You Help US?
AU Watch is looking for further researchers and qualifies human rights lawyers, especially those with expertise on the African Human Rights System to join our independent Panel of Legal Experts.

How we work

Improving justice service delivery
We work with state and non-state actors to develop their capacity to improve justice services for rights-holders. This includes working with the judiciary, legal aid boards, lawyers, paralegals, informal justice actors and traditional leaders. In some cases, we create service models that ensure quality legal aid to people in custody – including providing detainees with legal information, representation in court, as well as ensuring they have contact with their families.

Strengthening legal and policy frameworks
We help justice actors to improve laws, policies, procedures and guidelines that better serve the needs of rights-holders and strengthens access to justice. This could include strengthening ombudsman institutions or supporting drafting legislation that provides free and effective legal aid.

Enhancing rights-holders’ knowledge and agency
We work with partners including justice service providers, human rights institutions, and civil society to raise awareness and enable rights-holders to seek justice and remedies for grievances. For instance, we help develop university legal clinics that reach out to local communities and individuals to provide them with legal information on how to resolve their disputes and grievances.

Strategic Human Rights litigation

Strategic human rights litigation seeks to use the authority of the law to advocate for social change on behalf of individuals whose voices are otherwise not heard. For AU Watch, litigation is only one of our tools, which include research and analysis, advocacy and communication, documentation, institutional and human capacity building.

AU Watch provides litigation and advocacy support to individual plaintiffs and organizations by combining legal challenges with other activities including:

  • Litigating human rights violations in front of national, regional and international foras. That also includes pro bono support and participating inamicus curiaeor third-party intervenor briefs. We challenge impunity. But that is also complemented by media, outreach and advocacy before the African Union, United Nations, and Member States. In the future we hope to concentrate our litigation strategies on the following:
  1. Citizenship and Statelessness
  2. Corruption
  3. Access to Information
  4. Torture and the death Penalty
  5. Freedom of Expression
  6. Criminal Justice
  • Conducting research and analysis into human rights laws and challenges, including reviewing and providing feedback on complaints and other submissions that individuals or organizations intend to submit to the any of the African human right’s judicial bodies or United Nations human rights body;
  • Working with AU and its Members to reform policies that cause human rights violations, including engaging with regional and international human rights mechanisms – Commissioners of the African Commission, Judges of the African Court, tribunals, special rapporteurs, the Peer Review Mechanism, Universal Periodic Review, and other bodies or processes;
  • Advocatingand awareness raising with decision-makers for change
  • Using the media to bring attention to human rights challenges in the continent
  • Building the capacity of civil society to respond to violations and to campaign for redress.
  • Networking to understand current challenges and to join forces to challenge impunity, and connecting partners with expert pro bono support, with the objective of catalysing litigation efforts;
  • Offering litigation grants to litigants and young lawyers who cannot afford legal costs and without which they would be denied justice. We fund three types of activities: providing support to victims, pre-litigation research, litigation proper including travelling costs in some cases to appear before regional tribunals. We accept grant applications on a rolling basis.

Please visit our website to see calls for applications for special projects.

Why Strategic Litigation Matters

We borrow a quote from the Open Society:

“At a time when “illiberalism” has become a badge of honour for some, it may seem perverse that organisations like AU Watch would dedicate precious human and financial resources to the long, uncertain, often frustrating project of litigating in courts of law.

AFTER ALL, THE IDEALS UPON WHICH LITIGATION IS PREMISED—including respect for the rule of law, impartial fact-finding and the principle of legal accountability—are increasingly disparaged as unnecessary hindrances to the popular will. Moreover, one need hardly join the campaign against liberal values to recognize that, as practiced, legal action to advance human rights has promised more than it has achieved.


And yet, AU Watch pursues litigation precisely because of our commitment to the vital, if limited, role of law in furthering open societies. In a world of increasing political intolerance, courts are often among the few spaces where power may be challenged, dissent voiced and independent scrutiny applied.”